My Welfare Mom, Our Food Stamps and My Jewish Identity
Having grown up living on welfare with an alcoholic mother in a nonreligious household, Andrea Kott struggles with her Jewish identity.
By blood I was Jewish. In my mind, however, I was an imposter: a low-class, white-trash welfare kid who had never learned enough about Judaism to claim it as a birthright.
Photo By Aaron Parecki
“Do you think you could leave some more toilet paper next time?” The girl hollered from across the crowded school cafeteria. I didn’t know her or the other girls at her table, but I knew the request was meant for me: I cleaned the bathrooms in their dorm five mornings a week. I was on line for the salad bar, trying to duck the growing attention by examining the scuff marks on my shoes. But she fired the question again and, like a torpedo, it found me. “Heyyy,” she yelled. “Tomorrow: Could you leave a couple extra rolls?”
It was the first week of my freshman year at Brandeis University. I had applied to the elite, predominately Jewish, East Coast school because it was a fine university and I figured I had a good shot at financial aid, being a low-income Jew with a 4.0. In fact, Brandeis practically paid me to come; except for the chunk of aid I had to earn through work-study. I chose the highest-paid job that took the least amount of time. From six to nine every morning, I scrubbed, mopped, polished and wiped away graffiti and the remains of recent bulimic purges. It felt awkward cleaning up after my classmates as they tweezed their eyebrows and curled their hair. It certainly didn’t help me feel welcomed or accepted the way I’d thought I would, among other freshmen, most of us Jewish and away from home for the first time. I felt like an outsider.
I should have anticipated as much. Months earlier, when my letter of acceptance and registration materials had arrived on Brandeis letterhead—blue-and-white with Hebrew writing—I began doubting whether I belonged at a school with such a strong Jewish legacy. I had always connected being Jewish with material wealth and privilege, attending Hebrew school and becoming bat mitzvah. As the daughter of a single, alcoholic mother who lived on welfare, I hadn’t grown up with any of these things. In fact, I grew up knowing more Christmas carols than Friday night prayers in a home that defied every stereotypical notion of what being Jewish was about.
My Jewish experience began and ended with a few unexplained rituals. Even though my mother had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, by the time I was born, whatever meaning the tradition had once held for her was gone. Ten years earlier, at age 29, she had been widowed with two young sons; in her subsequent marriage to my father, she had been battered. When she fled him—with the three of us in tow—survival was her sole preoccupation. Terror and depression nearly paralyzed her. Her way of coping: two Scotches at dinnertime, earlier on weekends. A psychiatrist had prescribed tranquilizers to replace the Scotch. My mother found they worked better together.
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